I think that every city and geographical region gives off a kind of feeling- an ineffable mixture of geography, culture and mood, which one gets to know in a similar way to how we get to know a person. When we say that we love or hate a city or other place, is this intangible feeling not in part what we are referring to? Is it not also the thing that stays with us long after we leave? We feel connected to people we meet abroad who are from our city not because we know them, but because we have a mutual friend which is the city we inhabit. A fellow Chicagoan is someone who knows the torture of turning a corner in the dead of winter only to be pummeled by a glacial wind, and also the feeling of euphoria that permeates the city at the beginning of Spring. He also knows that people here like their pizza as thick as their unstylish winter coats and that only taqueria food will do when hunger strikes late at night. Having lived in Paris, I know that the early morning smells of coffee, baker’s yeast, and burning rubber from the metro below. I know that in the afternoon, cafés and brasseries all over the city turn into havens of relaxation where you are left alone to nurse your café crème, beer, or Coca. No meal, no sea of laptops, just calm. When I am in Paris, I can’t imagine life without these rest stops.
To me, traveling is partly about spending enough time in a place to feel its rhythms and its presence, and understand its ways. There are certain places that seem to be imbued with an especially powerful feeling, though, and I think Provence in the south of France is one of them. Mythologized in Marcel Pagnol movies and in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, this Mediterranean region has a climate, geography, language, and cuisine that are quite distinct from the rest of France. In the area we recently visited, called Les Baux de Provence, the landscape is extraordinary, and just being there gave me a sense of peace. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite photographs and foods from my recent trip there to give you a sense of Provence’s magical presence.
One distinct things about Provence that you notice as soon as you arrive is the scent of herbs that permeates the air thanks to lavender, rosemary, and thyme that grow wild absolutely everywhere. The landscape is dry and rocky with shades of dusty green from the olive trees and herbs, and the sun is a force to be reckoned with. Since herbs are so much a part of the landscape, they are also naturally essential to the character of the cuisine, as are the olives. Provence is not particularly lush, but it is known for its olives, Cavaillon melons (far sweeter than the giant cantaloupe we have in the US), violet figs, and its rosé wine.
Some of my personal favorite foods from Provence are Aïoli, a steamed vegetable and fish platter served with garlicky homemade mayonnaise, and Tian, a layered vegetable dish. Other specialties of the region include tapenade, daube (a beef stew), crunchy orange blossom flavored cookies called navettes, and nougat, which is a honey-based candy studded with pistachios or almonds. This time, I also tried a delightful dish at a restaurant called Ou Ravi Provençau, which was thyme-smoked stewed rabbit. Instead of smoking with wood, they had done it with thyme and it had a very unusual smoky herb flavor.
The herb-dotted hills:
Grapes and Figs:
Rosemary-scented bread sticks:
Brightly patterned ornaments and textiles are common in the area:
Grilled fish on a soft pancake that we got at a restaurant called Les Saveurs de Provence in Saint Remy de Provence:
Here are a few recipes that will give you a taste of Provençal cuisine in your own kitchen. The last one is actually from my mother-in-law, and is a recipe for a liqueur that is native to the Lyonnaise region where they live. Verveine (Lemon Verbena) is a very common herb in France and this liqueur is made with verbena leaves, which gives it a citrusy herbal flavor that I love. I thought an herb-infused liqueur was full of possibilities, though, for capturing the flavors of Provence. You could try other herbs like lemon thyme or basil.
Le Grand Aïoli (serves 4)
I love this dish. It’s very basic, and yet adds up to more than the sum of its parts. With nothing more complicated than carrots, potatoes, green beans, eggs and some white fish, you have a spread that is fit for a king thanks to the rich, garlicky sauce that can be used generously or sparingly. This is actually a cheater’s aioli, but it’s how I usually make it at home. If you are up for making homemade mayo, this is the time, but doctoring up some store-bought mayo is also good as long as you give it a bit of time to develop its garlic flavor. Don’t use anything but fresh crushed garlic, though. It’s essential to the flavor. This is also a great dish to make when you want a dinner that can wait for you. Once cooked, the ingredients can be put aside until needed (refrigerate if you plan to wait 2 hrs or more). It is best served at room temperature or slightly warm.
- 4 filets of any firm white fish
- 6-8 red potatoes, halved
- 1 lb green beans
- 3-4 carrots, sliced into sticks
- 4 eggs
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Aïoli Dipping Sauce:
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1-2 cloves fresh garlic
Mix the aïoli ingredients in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Place the beans, carrots, eggs and potatoes in a steamer (or alternatively in a baking dish with a bit of water and covered with foil) keeping them in separate piles. Cook until the vegetables are tender. Remove and set aside on a platter. Put the fish in the steamer or dish and cook until opaque throughout. Place next to the vegetables on the platter. Season with salt, pepper and extra-virgin olive oil.
To serve, peel eggs and slice in half. Give each person a piece of fish, 1 egg, a selection of vegetables, and a generous dollop of the sauce on the side.
Tian de Légumes
This is almost like a lighter version of eggplant parmesan but it is every bit as delicious.
- 1 large eggplant, sliced
- 3-4 tomatoes, sliced
- 1 cup sliced or shredded soft white cheese such as mozzarella
- Extra virgin olive oil as needed
- Herbes de Provence (usually includes rosemary, thyme, oregano, and bay)
Lay the eggplant on a plate lined with paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Set aside for 10-15 minutes and then press with paper towels to remove some of the water. In a lightly oiled baking dish, lay one layer of eggplant, followed by a layer of tomatoes and cheese. Sprinkle herbs, olive oil and salt and pepper. Continue layering, ending with cheese. Bake at 375 until golden and bubbly.
- 1 liter plain vodka
- 1 cup fresh or dried Lemon Verbena leaves (or other herbs)
- 3/4-1 cup sugar (more or less according to taste)
Transfer vodka to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add herbs and seal. Place in a dark place for 1-2 weeks (fresh takes longer than dried). Add sugar and strain vodka. Color green with food coloring if desired. Return to bottle.